I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
You could say my Goodreads to-read shelf has gotten out of hand. As of July 17th it was at 7190 titles. That includes pretty much every book I’ve ever heard about and thought “yeah, maybe I’ll read that someday.” Inspired by Eleanor’s “Down the TBR Hole” posts, I decided something needed to be done – but not just 5–10 titles at a time or I’d be at this forever. So in the last couple weeks I’ve looked through a few hundred or so entries on my TBR each day, starting with the ones that were added longest ago.
My culling strategies were as follows:
- Any duplicates – it’s possible to add multiple editions of a book (especially print vs. Kindle) without realizing it.
- Anything I don’t recognize in the slightest, even after a brief refresher on the blurb.
- Anything that doesn’t look like something I would read; yes, I’m afraid this involves judging the book by its cover.
- Anything labeled #1, or that I know is a sequel – I don’t generally read series.
- Most of what came up in searches for “murder,” “kill,” “detect,” “body,” “blood” or “mystery” – just facing facts here: I don’t ever read crime fiction. If a murder is incidental to a plot, fine, but I don’t search out mysteries.
- Any book I already own in print or e-format; the book itself serves as the reminder that I intend to read it. [Exception: I maintain “Kindle priority” and “priority advanced 2017 read” shelves.]
Get down to just one to-find-next title for each author. I already know I’ll read anything by Wendell Berry or Margaret Atwood, so I don’t need 10 titles on my TBR; I’ll keep the one I’m most keen on at the moment. Likewise, I discovered three titles each by Ivan Doig, Helen Garner and Tom Drury on the TBR but can’t remember how I even heard of these authors; I cut down to one title apiece. [Exceptions:
- If an author has written in very different genres, I’ll retain two books to showcase the diversity, perhaps one fiction and one nonfiction.
- If it’s an author I know I want to read everything by and there’s just a handful more books that I need to find to complete the set (e.g. Carol Shields and Marcus Borg), I’ll keep them all on the list so I know to look out for them.]
Transfer some reference-type books (e.g. philosophy/ethics books, essay collections, anthologies and cookbooks) to my “to skim only” shelf.
Say goodbye to an author who’s disappointed me in the past (Marina Endicott), who I’ve decided I might not be interested in after all (Russell Banks), or whom I’ve gone off (Howard Jacobson).
Scan through for notably low average ratings.
- For any book where this is below, say, 3.4, I’ll look back at the blurb and scan through the reviews, especially those by friends, and decide on a case-by-case basis whether I want to keep it on the list.
- Any book with a rating significantly below 3.0 gets deleted as a matter of course. There is the potential here for deleting some books that are polarizing and I might just love, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take; if I’m meant to read a book in my lifetime, it’ll happen somehow. [At one point, to hurry things along, I organized the to-read shelf by ascending average rating and (after getting past a bunch of 0.00 ratings for pre-release or unrated books) managed to cull a good number of books with a 2.-something average.]
This has turned out to be a much more laborious process than I’d hoped, mostly because you can only delete one title at a time and always have to click “OK” to verify. It would go so much faster if I could select 10 or 20 titles to delete at once. Yet it’s ended up being a rewarding undertaking because I’ve rediscovered many books I’d completely forgotten about. Along the way I’m adding loads to my thematic shelves and have updated my “priority to find” list. I’ve also created various new shelves like “parenting,” “dementia” and “Nancy Pearl recommendation”.
After working on this off and on for two weeks – keeping a Goodreads window open all day while doing other computer work – I managed to get the TBR down to 5498 titles. So I’ve cut the original list down by about 23.5%. However, I still have 91 pages of results to sift through. It’s a bit depressing that after all the effort I’ve put in I still have so much to do when I get back from America. At the same time, it’s quite the addictive little task. The idea is that ultimately the TBR will be significantly shorter and more targeted to my tastes.
I shall report back when I’m finally finished!
How do you keep your (virtual or physical) TBR shelf under control?
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)
Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.
After I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.
McLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.
Any number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.
Reading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).
James Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.
The fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)
There’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.
I frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.”
Can you think of any books that have literally changed your life?
Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:
Christmas is the salt mine.
Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.
I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.
I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:
Up here the evening glides over golden moss
on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft
Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,
midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule
logs and mistletoe.
The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.
It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.
Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.
Other Christmassy Reading
This year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.
As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.
In addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.
[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]
Are you reading anything special this Christmas season?
This is only the second theology book I’ve reviewed here, after Joan Chittister’s Between the Dark and the Daylight in May 2015. I requested John Pritchard’s Something More from SPCK after reading a leaflet about it at Bloxham Festival, thinking it sounded like a relevant, non-preachy approach to the spiritual side of life. And that is indeed what I found. It’s a book stuffed full of relatable themes under one overarching topic: the moments that cause us to question whether there is more to life than what we see and do in the everyday.
Each chapter has many of the familiar elements of a short sermon: opening prompts, personal or borrowed anecdotes, exposition of a theme, quotations from the Bible and other writers or poets, and life application questions. At times I felt Pritchard was too reliant on quotes from other authors, meaning I didn’t get a particular sense of his own style. However, like an Anglican sermon, each chapter is something you can work through in 10 or 15 minutes – understandable, solidly put together, and with plenty of take-home messages.
Some examples of the chapter-by-chapter themes are suffering, social justice, the arts, and the search for stillness and wonder. There are a few slightly overlapping pieces that might have been combined, but that would have altered the digestible format. A recurring image is of the church building as a tranquil place of holiness and power – no matter if you view it religiously or not. Whether Pritchard is discussing pain or poetry, his tactic is always to expose hints of the supernatural. “To describe the Bruch violin concerto as the product of horse hair scraping over catgut doesn’t feel adequate. There’s more to be said,” he writes.
That word “more” is the book’s clarion call, encouraging readers to look deeper into every situation for sparks of light that point to God. SPCK is a venerable Christian publishing company and Pritchard is a retired Bishop of Oxford, so it’s clear where the book is coming from. Its assumptions may not reflect your own, as Pritchard is well aware. He remembers being in a hospital in London and telling his nurse about the book he was planning. “The entire Christian world-view is probably a foreign country to my nurse,” he realized, which encouraged him to avoid religious jargon and keep it simple and applicable here.
I think everyone can relate to the circumstances Pritchard sets out at the beginning of the book: “Life is OK in an OK kind of way but it fails the test of ecstasy or lament. It rolls on in a safe, middling register, but it feels as if there should be more. … In the meantime we get on with secondary things, with our habits of low hope.” If you dare to think there must be more to life than going to work and paying the bills and want to explore what might be out there, I’d recommend picking this up alongside books by some of the other terrific writers Pritchard quotes, such as Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
With thanks to Sarah Head at SPCK for sending a free copy for review.
Unlike Christmas, Easter is a holiday that might not lend itself so easily to reading lists. December is the perfect time to be reading cozy books with wintry scenes of snow and hearth, or old-time favorites like Charles Dickens. Christmas-themed books and short stories are a whole industry, it seems. Lent and Advent both prize special foods, traditions and symbols, but beyond devotional reading there doesn’t seem to be an Easter book scene. Nonetheless, I have a handful of books I’d like to recommend for the run-up to Easter, whether for this year or the future.
I hadn’t heard of Michael Arditti until I reviewed his novel The Breath of Night – a taut, Heart of Darkness-inspired thriller about a young man searching for a missing priest in the Philippines – for Third Way magazine in late 2013. He deserves to be better known. Easter (2000), his third novel, earned him comparisons to Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym. His nuanced picture of modern Christianity, especially the Anglican Church, is spot-on.
I’ve just finished Part One, which traces the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in a fictional London parish, St Mary-in-the-Vale, Hampstead. Structured around the services of Holy Week and punctuated with bits of liturgy, the novel moves between the close third-person perspectives of various clergy and parishioners. Huxley Grieve, the vicar, is – rather inconveniently – experiencing serious doubts in this week of all weeks. And this at a time when the new Bishop of London, Ted Bishop (“Bishop by name, bishop by calling,” he quips), has announced his mission to root out the poison of liberalism from the Church.
So far I’m reminded of a cross between Susan Howatch and David Lodge (especially in How Far Can You Go?), with a dash of the BBC comedy Rev thrown in. Reverend Grieve’s sermons may be achingly earnest, but the novel is also very funny indeed. Here’s a passage, almost like a set of stage directions, from the Palm Sunday service: “The procession moves up the nave. The Curate leads the donkey around the church. It takes fright at the cloud of incense and defecates by the font.”
In this peculiar novel-cum-biography, Beard attempts to piece together everything that has ever been said, written and thought about the biblical character of Lazarus. The best sections have Beard ferreting out the many diseases from which Lazarus may have been suffering, and imagining what his stench – both in life and in death – must have been like. (“He stinketh,” as the Book of John pithily puts it.)
Alongside these reasonable conjectures is a strange, invented backstory for Jesus and Lazarus: when they were children Jesus failed to save Lazarus’ younger brother from drowning and Lazarus has borne a lifelong grudge. A Roman official is able to temporarily convince Lazarus that he needs to take up the mantle of the Messiah because he came back to life: he has the miracle to prove the position, whether he wants it or not. The end of the novel follows the strand of the Passion Week, though in a disconnected and halfhearted fashion.
Beard’s interest is not that of a religious devotee or a scriptural scholar, but of a skeptical postmodern reader. Lazarus is a vehicle for questions of textual accuracy, imagination, and the creation of a narrative of life and death. His unprecedented second life must make him irresistible to experimental novelists. Beard’s follow-up novel, Acts of the Assassins, is also Bible-themed; it’s a thriller that imagines the Roman Empire still in charge today.
No matter your current thoughts on the death penalty, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. I read it in the run-up to Easter 2007, and would recommend it as perfect reading for the season. As I truly engaged with themes of guilt and retribution, I felt the reality of death row was brought home to me for the first time. Many of the men Prejean deals with in this book we would tend to dismiss as monsters, yet Jesus is the God who comes for the lost and the discounted, the God who faces execution himself.
The film version, which conflates some of the characters and events of the book, is equally affecting. I saw it first, but it does not ruin the reading experience in any way.
Marcus Borg, who just died on January 21st, has been one of the most important theologians in my continuing journey with Christianity. His Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Heart of Christianity are essential reading for anyone who’s about to give up on the faith. In this day-by-day account, mostly referencing the Gospel of Mark, Borg and Crossan convey all that is known about the historical Jesus’ last week and death. They collaborated on a second book, The First Christmas, which does the same for Jesus’ birth.
And now for two more unusual, secular selections…
Call me morbid, but I love English graveyards. My most enduring Easter memory is of dawn services at the country church in my husband’s hometown. In the weak half-light, with churchyard rooks croaking a near-deafening chorus, the overwhelming sense was of rampant wildness. The congregation huddled around a bonfire while a black-cloaked vicar intoned the story of scripture, from creation to the coming of Christ, as loudly as possible over the rooks – trying to win mastery over the night, and score a point for civilization in the meantime.
This anecdote goes some way toward explaining why I rather enjoyed Bellman and Black – but why many others won’t. Setterfield’s second novel is a peculiar beast, a bit like a classic suspense story but also an English country fable. Protagonist William Bellman is part Job and part Faustus. At age ten, he makes a catapult that kills a rook. Thereafter, his life is plagued by death, despite his successful career as an entrepreneur at a cloth mill. Can he make a deal with the Devil – or, rather, the sinister Mr. Black – that will stop the cycle of deaths?
Bellman’s daughter Dora is a wonderful character, and because I love birds anyway and have strong, visceral memories involving rooks in particular, I enjoyed Setterfield’s symbolic use of them. However, many will be bored to tears by details of cloth-making and dyeing in early nineteenth-century England. Setterfield evokes her time period cannily, but in such a painstaking manner that the setting does not feel entirely natural. Here’s hoping for a return to form with Setterfield’s third novel.
This was the first book I ever borrowed from the Adult Fiction section of the public library, when I was eight years old. It quickly became a favorite, and though I didn’t reread it over and over like I did the Chronicles of Narnia, it still has a strong place in my childhood memories. Why have I chosen it for this list? Well, it’s about rabbits: a warren comes under threat from English countryside development and human interference.
I loved a little story Rachel Joyce inserts in her novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. Taking over from another nun, a young, air-headed nurse at Queenie’s hospice resumes reading Watership Down to a patient. At the end the patient cries, “Oh, it’s so sad, those poor rabbits” and the nurse replies, “What rabbits?” (You’d think the cover might have given it away!) It’s a good laugh, but also reflects how carefully Adams characterizes – one might say anthropomorphizes – each rabbit; you might forget they’re actually animals.
Do you have any favorite books to read or reread at particular holidays?
Happy spring reading!